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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Spotlight: Cinematographer Michael Simmonds on Working Collaboratively with Ramin Bahrani

You’ve probably seen Michael Simmonds work, even if you don’t realize it. The ace cinematographer has been very busy over the last few years shooting lots of movies, including notable docs Project Nim and The Order of Myths. He’s also shot all of Ramin Bahrani’s better-known films: Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo, and Plastic Bag, a terrific short narrated by Werner Herzog, and featured on Futurestates.

I first met Michael at Sundance years ago when Man Push Cart, Bahrani’s first major feature, was playing there, and his work so impressed me that that I’ve followed it since. A while back (okay, a LONG while back, like in October), we chatted through email about the way in which he and Bahrani collaborate, and he was kind enough to allow me to share his thoughts with you here.

Kim Voynar: How does the filmmaking process working with Ramin differ from your other projects? Specifically are there ways in which the process is more collaborative? Do you have more creative input, artistic freedom?

Michael Simmonds: I met Ramin in 2002 at Tribeca Film Festival after a screening of Amir Naderi’s Marathon, which I shot. He asked me if i would read his script which dealt with people who are mentally, physically and literally stuck in boxes. It was a very early draft of Man Push Cart, and was really good. Since that first encounter we probably have not gone more than a few weeks without talking.

Although Ramin and I communicate frequently, our conversations are always focused on cinema, movies we are watching and films we would like to make. There are no “meetings” but rather a consistent dialogue which has continued for 8 years and counting. It is a collaboration based on mutual respect and a common desire to make the best films we can. Films that we as audience members would want to see. No creative statement is off-limits between the two of us. Of course as the director he has no obligation what so ever to use the idea I may bring to the table, but I know he has thought about it and taken the idea seriously.

We began making these films when we were fairly young and had little resources. I was probably 24 or so when we made Man Push Cart. My involvement in other aspects of the production aside from my DP responsibilities began out of necessity rather than some sort of enthusiasm.

KV: I’m curious as to whether your input has ever influenced or changed the story itself either during prep or once filming has started? Or does Ramin come into it knowing exactly the story he wants to tell and then just looks to you for input on how to frame that
onscreen?

MS: Ramin is a director who is very focused on blocking with the camera and actors. He re-writes his scripts with the camera once on location. On Chop Shop we shot the entire film on a little camera for what felt like months … we have never done a “table reading” that i can remember, but rather rehearse on location with a video camera.

Ramin has his own process (for working with) cast which I have every little to do with. He might bring me in at a early stage to meet a few people so they have a familiarity as the project moves forward. Then after an amount of rehearsal period, we will bring me in to shoot some rehearsals. This is to introduce the actors to the process of working with a director AND cameraman.

For Goodbye Solo our challenge was primarily shooting in a car, which neither Ramin or i had done at that point. So we began by taking the obvious first step and spent a few days watching every car film we could find. We then went over the script together and discussed what we wanted tonally from each car scene and what type of location, framing and lighting would best match the scene. Then we took a digital still camera and photographed each other as the actors in the actual picture car to figure out if the ideas worked and how to technically achieve the shots.

Ramin and I have shot most of our films in one continuous shot, very rarely using “shot reverse shot”. Shooting in a car is very time consuming due to set up time and car scenes cannot be done in one take for obvious blocking reasons. We created shot lists and blocking to emphasize what was happening in the story.

For instance, at some point William starts to sit in the front seat of the cab due to the fact that he is no longer a passenger in the car but rather a friend. We would take this logic and find the best shot to show this.

There are a million and one ways to make a movie and Ramin and I have spent three-and-a-half movies working in a very close and collaborative way. I do not have the same relationship with other directors — but I don’t have the same relationship with ANY two directors. Each collaboration is its own unique experience and process.

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Julian Schnabel: Years ago, I was down there with my cousin’s wife Corky. She was wild — she wore makeup on her legs, and she had a streak in her hair like Yvonne De Carlo in “The Munsters.” She liked to paint. I had overalls on with just a T-shirt and looked like whatever. We were trying to buy a bunch of supplies with my cousin Jesse’s credit card. They looked at the credit card, and then they looked at us and thought maybe we stole the card, so they called Jesse up. He was a doctor who became the head of trauma at St. Vincent’s. They said, “There’s somebody here with this credit card and we want to know if it belongs to you.”

He said, “Well, does the woman have dyed blonde hair and fake eyelashes and look like she stepped out of the backstage of some kind of silent movie, and is she with some guy who has wild hair and is kind of dressed like a bum?”

“Yeah, that’s them.”

“Yeah, that’s my cousin and my wife. It’s okay, they can charge it on my card.”
~ Julian Schnabel Remembers NYC’s Now-Shuttered Pearl Paint

MB Cool. I was really interested in the aerial photography from Enter the Void and how one could understand that conceptually as a POV, while in fact it’s more of an objective view of the city where the story takes place. So it’s an objective and subjective camera at the same time. I know that you’re interested in Kubrick. We’ve talked about that in the past because it’s something that you and I have in common—

GN You’re obsessed with Kubrick, too.

MB Does he still occupy your mind or was he more of an early influence?

GN He was more of an early influence. Kubrick has been my idol my whole life, my own “god.” I was six or seven years old when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I never felt such cinematic ecstasy. Maybe that’s what brought me to direct movies, to try to compete with that “wizard of Oz” behind the film. So then, years later, I tried to do something in that direction, like many other directors tried to do their own, you know, homage or remake or parody or whatever of 2001. I don’t know if you ever had that movie in mind for your own projects. But in my case, I don’t think about 2001 anymore now. That film was my first “trip” ever. And then I tried my best to reproduce on screen what some drug trips are like. But it’s very hard. For sure, moving images are a better medium than words, but it’s still very far from the real experience. I read that Kubrick said about Lynch’s Eraserhead, that he wished he had made that movie because it was the film he had seen that came closest to the language of nightmares.

Matthew Barney and Gaspar Noé